William P. Thompson, Presbyterian and Ecumenical Leader, Dies at 87
- William P. Thompson, Presbyterian and Ecumenical Leader, Dies at 87
'Stately clerk' had a long and distinguished career
by Jerry L. Van Marter
PCUSA News Service
April 27, 2006
LOUISVILLE - William P. Thompson, 87, a towering figure in
Presbyterian and ecumenical circles in the last half of the 20th
century, died on April 27 in a hospital in suburban Chicago. He had
been in declining health for several years.
Thompson, a lawyer who spent most of his legal career in Wichita, KS,
was a protege of Eugene Carson Blake. He was elected moderator of the
General Assembly in 1965, and one year later succeeded Blake as
General Assembly stated clerk.
As stated clerk of the northern "stream" of Presbyterianism, he worked
tirelessly for Presbyterian reunion with his counterpart in the
southern church, the Rev. James E. Andrews. Ironically, Andrews died
last month, leaving the church without its two most historically
Reunion occurred in 1983. For one year, Andrews and Thompson served as
co-interim stated clerks, vowing that neither would be a candidate in
1984, when the first stated clerk of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
would be elected. But both men were drawn into the heated race.
Andrews won. Thompson then retired.
Thompson, a brilliant legal and organizational thinker, led the
Presbyterian church through the civil-rights struggles of the 1960s,
anti-Vietnam War movement of the late '60s and early '70s, and the
battles for women's rights and gay rights in the '70s and '80s.
For years after the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of
America adopted a policy barring the ordination of non-celibate gays
and lesbians, Thompson was one of its staunchest defenders. However,
in retirement he changed his mind, and repeatedly expressed regret for
his earlier stance. In 2001 he received the Lazarus Award from the
southern California-based Lazarus Project, which advocates "a fully
Thompson also followed Blake's lead into the worldwide ecumenical
movement, continuing his predecessor's deep involvement in the World
Council of Churches and the National Council of Churches. He was
instrumental in the merger of several Reformed groupings into the
World Alliance of Reformed Churches in 1970, and then served as the
alliance's first president from 1970-1977. He was president of the
National Council of Churches from 1975 to 1978.
In 2000, he and his wife, Mary, established the William and Mary
Thompson Ecumenical Scholarship Fund to develop leadership for the
global ecumenical movement.
Funeral services for Thompson are pending in Chicago.
General Assembly Stated Clerk Clifton Kirkpatrick issued the following
statement shortly after Thompson's death:
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has lost one of its greatest
and best leaders in the passing of William P. Thompson. Speaking on
behalf of the staff of the Office of the General Assembly (OGA),
Presbyterians worldwide, and the ecumenical community of faith, I add
my condolences to his wife Mary and the entire Thompson family.
Those who worked with Bill called him a "living legend." He
provided leadership to the church in a variety of capacities, which
included serving first as Moderator of the General Assembly of the
United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America and later
as Stated Clerk of the same denomination; and as president of both the
World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the National Council of
Churches in Christ. He teamed up with Jim Andrews, his counterpart as
Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church in the United States, to work
to bring to reality the 1983 reunion to form our present-day PC(USA).
Bill had a deep interest in Presbyterian history. During his
tenure, the OGA's Department of History was transformed from a limited
denominational national library and archives into a comprehensive
ecumenical resource center.
Bill was a recognized leader in the ecumenical movement. He
was tireless in his advocacy for human rights, and he used well his
skills as a mediator and reconciler.
I have lost a good friend with the passing of Bill. I will
especially miss his wisdom and keen insight. He truly loved this church.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my
life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever (Ps. 23:6).
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